Canada's unsavory winds irk US neighbors

Two US state officials recently asked Ottawa to review three coal-fired industrial plants.

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Canadians have long complained about smog wafting north from US industrial centers. But smokestack emissions waft both ways as prevailing winds zigzag across the border on their way to sea.

Now it's Ontario's turn to draw flak for adding to this unsavory traffic as the two countries begin to implement a new air-quality agreement, signed in December.

The attorneys general of New York and Connecticut are demanding that Ottawa take action against three coal-fired power plants in Ontario, which they say are causing acid rain and human health problems in the region.

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In a Jan. 31 letter, Eliot Spitzer of New York and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut asked Ottawa to review the plants, one of which is among North America's highest-profile polluters. The move indicates that despite decade-long efforts on both sides to improve the air, Canada's industrial belt is lagging in reform.

The Canada-US Air Quality Agreement of 1991 was a treaty addressing transborder air pollution that was causing acid rain and damaging wildlife.

More recently, policymakers have focused on human health problems ascribed to smog. Last year the countries negotiated an Ozone Annex to the Air Quality Agreement, signed Dec. 7, committing both parties to reducing nitrous-oxide emissions.

On Feb. 19, David Anderson, federal environment minister, announced a US$84 million program of "investments" in air-quality improvements to help Canada meet its obligations.

But environmentalists here are pointing to Ontario, the most populous and heavily industrialized Canadian province, as the main hindrance to efforts to cut emissions of nitrous oxide, a so-called precursor to smog.

While Ontario says it gets pollution from the Midwest, many Canadians welcome the new pressure by the US attorneys general because, they say, Canada should practice what it preaches.

Jim Bradley, a liberal environmental critic of Ontario's provincial government, says a public review panel would "expose the weaknesses" of the current plan to clean up the emissions from the coal-fired plants. He wants the province "to create a positive course of action instead of dancing to the tune of OPG [Ontario Power Generation]," the provincially owned utility that runs the three plants.

"Fifty percent of Ontario's smog comes from the Midwest; the US pollutes us more than we do them," points out John Wellner of Pollution Probe. But history has shown that to make progress toward cleaner air, "we're going to have to go to the table with clean hands."

Part of the problem, many say, is that Ontario lacks a complete program for meeting the goal.

But the feds aren't pushing too hard. Environmental protection is a joint responsibility here, and Ottawa seems inclined to rely on cooperation and moral suasion - instead of harsher penalties - in coercing Ontario into line.

"We are working with the Ontario government ... to achieve the compliance levels we think will be necessary," Mr. Anderson told reporters last week. Stronger sanctions "would not be the most efficient way of proceeding."

But Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Blumenthal, the attorneys general, evidently wouldn't mind more pressure on Ontario.

The Nanticoke power plant, south of Hamilton, is the largest coal-fired station in North America. Some 88 percent of Nanticoke's emissions, a Canadian study found, hit Buffalo, 40 miles downwind, right in the chops.

"Because of our desire to reduce respiratory disease and acid rain, we have been at the forefront of a number of cases designed to reduce NOx [nitrous oxide] and SO2 [sulfur dioxide] emissions at power plants in the Mid-west and mid-Atlantic regions of the United States," the US officials wrote. "These coal-burning power plants have caused and will continue to cause adverse environmental and public health effects in Canada, New York, Connecticut, and other downwind states."

But John Earl of OPG, which produces 85 percent of Ontario's electricity, says: "We meet or better every regulatory requirement placed on us."

While critics want OPG to convert the plants to gas, it wouldn't be cost-effective at this time of high prices, Mr. Earl says. "We don't see any of the utilities in the US running out to convert to gas," he observes pointedly.

In the crossborder region covered by the Ozone Annex, there are 200 fossil-fuel stations on the US side and only five on the Canadian side, Earl adds.

Similarly, Tony Rockingham, director of air quality and climate change for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, accuses the US state officials of comparing apples and oranges: Taken as a whole, Ontario's electricity sector is better at producing "clean electrons" because the province has so much hydro- and nuclear electricity. "One can play the game of choosing the metric."

Moreover, Mr. Rockingham insists that the province is fully committed to a target of 45 percent reduction in nitrous-oxide emissions, from 1990 levels, by the year 2015 - even if it doesn't have a detailed road map in place for reaching the target. "We purposely establish long-term targets to let markets react."

It is this attitude that, despite the $1 billion that OPG has spent cleaning up its act over the past 15 years, has opened the province to charges from environmentalists that Ontario isn't with the program.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is considering the states' request. A response is expected soon, but no timeline has been given.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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